In the past decade alone, a bewildering assortment of institutions in the United States has hosted blockbuster exhibitions about Pompeii, the ancient Roman town buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE. These have included the California Science Center (2015), the Kansas City Union Station (2016), and even the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (2018). The range of venues reflects the sheer variety of material preserved by the volcanic eruption, from mundane household goods and precious art objects to human remains. However, to appreciate Pompeii’s most celebrated heritage—the richly colored frescoes that covered the walls of its town houses and villas—Americans have typically had to save up for a visit to Italy. For this reason alone, “Pompeii in Color: The Life of Roman Painting,” an exhibition of thirty-five detached wall paintings from Pompeii and neighboring towns, currently on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, is well worth a visit. Loaned by the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, the fragile frescoes seldom travel for exhibitions outside Italy.
“Pompeii in Color” stands out from the above exhibitions in its deliberate orientation away from the daily lives of the frescoes’ patrons and toward ancient artistic practices, even including rare examples of painters’ tools preserved by the eruption, such as cups overflowing with vibrant pigments. The show’s tight focus on process also provides a starting point for a deeper engagement with the material remains of Roman antiquity. The exhibition asks us to examine these paintings not as household decor reflecting the tastes of the city’s homeowners, but as the individual works of Pompeian wall painters. However, it does not argue why this exercise is relevant to a modern audience. This is a missed opportunity, as producing these frescoes required their makers to consider broader social issues as part of their process. Some of these issues—such as gender and how it is visually expressed—remain as relevant to modern viewers as they were to ancient painters.
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The opinions and attitudes of the wall painters themselves did not survive, owing largely to these artists’ low standing in Roman society. Literary evidence from Pliny the Elder indicates that educated Romans considered contemporary wall painters inferior to the famed painters of Ancient Greece (whose perishable works from the 5thto 4th century BCE are today lost). Whereas the latter were thought to serve the public good by exhibiting their works in civic spaces, wall painters served only the private patron whose home they decorated. This made them socially anonymous laborers, their work more akin to that of slaves or freedmen. Still, even if their socioeconomic power was minimal, Roman wall painters had virtuosic control over their pigments and a keen awareness of how to manipulate viewers’ expectations.
This power radiates from one of the exhibition’s highlights, a fresco from a house known to scholars as the House of the Surgeon, which takes up the theme of painting as such. The fresco depicts an elegant woman putting finishing touches on a picture. To her left, her subject, at which she gazes intently, is a richly painted statue of the god Dionysus. What is interesting here is not so much the statue’s polychromy—a recent public awareness campaign regarding the ancient sculptures’ original vibrant colors has been remarkably successful—as the woman’s choice to depict a painted statue in a painting of her own. On closer scrutiny, the unfinished picture does not seem to include the figure’s pedestal; will her Dionysus therefore look more lifelike than the (already lifelike) sculpted and painted Dionysus? By making the viewer intuitively compare the two renderings, the wall painter makes a subtle claim about their own ability to render degrees of lifelikeness. The result is a meta-painting: it renders, in paint, a painter painting a painting of a painted statue.
The fresco from the House of the Surgeon is one of only a handful of surviving Roman representations of painters at work. Curiously, in these rare depictions, the subject is often an idealized female artist. Although we lack epigraphic evidence for the existence of female Roman painters, these representations help us undo some of the default gendering of all ancient painting as men’s work. Such gendering is omnipresent in Pompeian scholarship. The house from which this painting was taken—the so-called House of the Surgeon—was given its scholarly moniker because it contained a large cache of medical instruments, including bone levers, spatulas, speculums, and surgical shears. Based on these finds, the excavators assumed the house was owned by a wealthy (male) surgeon. This male-centered interpretation reflects some of archaeology’s long-standing biases: in the words of pioneering archaeologist Penelope Allison, “investigations of the Roman world have been dominated by concern for the representation of masculine power.” As a result, “unlike domestic space in many other societies, there has never really been an understanding that Roman domestic space was women’s space.” This perspective has shifted in recent decades, as scholars such as Allison have helped reevaluate interpretations of ancient material culture. Many of the tools found, for instance, have multiple uses—shears were used to cut hair, and spatulas served as makeup applicators—and may easily have been used by women living in the house. In similar fashion, while the painter who produced this fresco was in all likelihood male, the object’s subtle claim about the remarkable talents of painters does not limit that ability to men.
Several frescoes in the exhibition depict popular myths in which the visual representation of gender constitutes an integral part of the narrative, including a pair of unrelated frescoes representing the Greek hero Achilles wearing women’s clothes. In the depicted myth, Achilles’s mother, Thetis, tries to prevent her son from joining the Trojan War by dressing him as a girl and hiding him on the island of Skyros among the daughters of King Lycomedes. When Odysseus and Diomedes come to fetch him, they trick Achilles into revealing himself by sounding a war trumpet that makes him inadvertently reach for weapons like the warrior he is. The two large frescoes—one from the so-called House of the Dioscuri, the other from the so-called House of Achilles—depict this moment of Achilles’s exposure, with all the principal actors arranged in a busy composition.
In picturing this particular myth, the wall painters had to think through issues of gender representation as problems of visual storytelling. Side by side, the frescoes show contrasting approaches to a difficult painterly challenge: visualizing the seemingly straightforward moment of exposure hinges on depicting Achilles as both convincingly female in his appearance and convincingly male in his intuitive reaction. The painting from the House of the Dioscuri achieves this ambiguity primarily by feminizing Achilles’s features and clothing, lengthening his dark eyelashes and adding highlights that suggest precious fabrics. In the fresco from the House of Achilles, by contrast, the hero appears more typically masculine in anatomy and dress. To hint at the implied gender difference, this painter relied on the ancient norms of rendering skin tones darker for men and brighter for women: flanked by the tan Odysseus and Diomedes, the skin of Achilles appears visibly brighter. In the process of painting, a clear binary of male versus female momentarily disappears.
What at first appears to be a pretty straightforward brief—to depict a well-known myth—required the painters to reflect on gender and the range of its expressions, as well as the way viewers might regard gendered imagery. This is not to say that the painters, or anyone else in Roman society, conceived of gender in a way that we would today call progressive. To put it more bluntly, even if some lower-status painters in Pompeii, in the process of fulfilling a patron’s commission, had to think through what it might mean to look like a boy trying to look like a girl, it would be unwarranted to suggest that this represents some conscious rejection of the gender binary.
At the same time, these observations about the visual construction of gender in painting do not stand in isolation from an ever-growing body of scholarship about the visual scrutiny of gender in Roman life. Connections can be made, for instance, to the groundbreaking work of Amy Richlin on the physical aspects of Roman rhetorical education, through which boys were trained to constrict their appearance while speaking on stage and to adopt only those poses and gestures that were thought to constitute ideal manhood. Similarly, Kelly Olson’s scholarship on Roman women’s clothing reveals how minute differences in the dress of Roman women helped construct hierarchies among different ideals of the female body. Reaching beyond the tropes of masculinity and femininity, the 2020 volume Exploring Gender Diversity in the Ancient World, edited by Allison Surtees and Jennifer Dyer, brings together a slew of innovative approaches to ancient gender diversity, explicitly informed by queer and transgender studies. Much of this exciting scholarship being out of the general public’s reach, an exhibition such as “Pompeii in Color” might have provided an excellent means to introduce audiences to how a society’s approach to image-making reflects complex social concepts. Instead, it focuses more narrowly on the narratives behind these frescoes and the technical details of their production—facts that, while interesting, do not encourage viewers to consider these larger implications.
While ancient Roman wall painters may have tackled such concepts purely from the standpoint of their own trade, keeping their agency and decisions in mind helps dispel a number of myths about the ancient world, including the essentialist claims of today’s reactionaries about classical antiquity having been a time when, supposedly, “men were men” and “women were women.” Ancient images of men and women, even the most stereotypical ones, are nevertheless images: they indicate how gender was created, whether through clothing and body movements or through pigments and brushstrokes. The material culture left behind by Roman wall painters suggests not only that they thought carefully about their work, but also that they were aware of the power of their illusionistic abilities. As in the image of the anonymous lady painting a statue of Dionysus, with a single decision, they could make dead matter come to life.